For someone whose job is steering and shaping the future of the Virgin brand, Lisa Thomas is surprisingly relaxed. But then this is a woman who is used to confounding expectations – as we find out…
When you’ve headed up one of the most famous advertising agencies in the world, what comes next? For Lisa Thomas, the challenge was an exciting dual role at Virgin: Global Head of Brand and Managing Director of Virgin Enterprises. Since February 2016, Lisa has been doing all she can to get under the skin of the Virgin brand, including some serious hotfooting around the globe.
Happily, she’s loving what she sees, which is good news – not least for Lisa, who hasn’t worked ‘client-side’ for a while. So why make such a big career change? Partly, she admits, it was down to personal admiration for the Virgin brand.
“I was travelling on business when Virgin Atlantic became a serious contender to British Airways, and Richard was a real inspiration to my generation,” says Lisa. “The growth of the Virgin brand has been a phenomenal journey, and to be part of that in the future is a very exciting prospect.”
Not that she’s complacent about the realities of taking on one of the most famous brands in the world: “There’s a lot of pressure associated with going into a successful organisation. It’s actually easier to go into a company that’s failing and turn it round!”
She has also discovered that there is more to the Virgin brand than even she anticipated. “One of the reasons I was attracted to the job was the broad nature of the business,” she explains. “Since I’ve joined, I’ve realised that not only are we working across a wide range of sectors, the individual companies are also all at very different stages of their development. And that is fascinating.”
In particular, Lisa admires Virgin’s constant desire to challenge itself. “A lot of industries take the view that ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ Instead, you should be challenging yourself to be better and to think differently. That’s what’s so exciting about the culture here – we don’t settle.”
Indeed, the Virgin culture is possibly what has delighted Lisa most. “Coming in from a very different industry, one of the things that is incredible here is the focus on creating happy people. Virgin’s culture of trust creates independent, confident people who are bright, fun and hard-working,” she says. “Here, we trust people to do the best job that they can, and that’s actually quite unusual.”
Virgin also understands that there’s a whole person who comes to work and that going on maternity leave, for example, doesn’t mean that you’re out of the business. It simply means you’ve got a life, a really important life, outside of work and we give you space to go and do that, and then come back into the business. And that is really important.”
What skills and strengths does Lisa feel she is bringing to the table? “A key part of my role here is building relationships because I want to bring people with me, rather than imposing change. I’m used to relationship-building – I’ve spent years selling ideas to marketing directors who don’t necessarily want to buy those ideas!
“I think I’m quite intuitive in my approach to business and I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I very rarely take decisions that don’t feel completely right in my gut. I like to have clarity around a strategy, and I enjoy collaboration and playing to people’s strengths. I’m also a big believer in treating people how you would want to be treated yourself.”
Lisa feels it’s still too early to talk strategy, but she is adamant that Virgin needs to keep its eyes firmly on the horizon. “I think a lot of famous and successful brands can be quite backward-looking. They tend to talk about previous successes, whereas we must keep looking forward,” she says. “My focus is millennials, new markets and the US. The brand is already in a great place in the States, but we have some really exciting new businesses launching there, so how can we capitalise on that?
“And while I’m sure every generation believes they’re living in a period of change, technology has invaded our lives in an extraordinary way that generations before haven’t had to deal with. There are huge positives wrapped up in that, but we’re a business that has been built on customer service. A large part of our success has been about empowering our staff to deliver the ultimate in customer service at touch points in high touch environments. So our biggest challenge is how we continue to deliver that in a world of ever-changing technology.”